Friday, September 18, 2015

That Old Line About Why Leaves Change Color

in this leaf the veins are still green while the other tissue is turning redAs a wee lad I was told a story wherein the bright summer sun would bleach pigment from clothes hung on the line, and save up the colors to paint on autumn leaves. Thinking back on that yarn it occurs to me that solar dryers (a.k.a. laundry lines) and fall leaf color change are similar in how they operate. They’re both elegant and cost-free, but their performance depends on the weather.

The same clear-sky conditions that produce dry, fresh-smelling (and just a teensy bit faded) laundry also make for the best leaf color. While the former process is well-understood, the latter is a story fraught with murder and intrigue, and requires some explanation.

Chlorophyll, the green molecule at the center of the photosynthesis miracle, is what makes the world go ’round. Some say money is, but they need a reality, um, check. Without chlorophyll the sole life on Earth would be bacteria, whereas without money we’d merely have to adjust to a barter system. (Given that chlorophyll and currency are both green, it’s easy to understand the mistake.)

Green gives way to fall colors, though, when trees start killing their own chlorophyll, revealing yellow xanthophylls and orange carotenenoids that were in the leaves all along. How could a tree be so heartless as to slay its chlorophyll? Aside from the obvious—it doesn’t have a heart muscle—the answer is to keep from drying to a crisp in the winter.

Leaf_color_changeEach leaf is jacked into the tree’s circulatory system: water and nutrients enter, sugars exit. In autumn these connections have to be sealed or the open vascular tissue would allow moisture to seep out and pathogens to get in. When the days shorten to a certain point, trees start to make a waxy plug, or abscission layer, between leaf and twig, thus choking chlorophyll and rolling out the new color scheme.

Yellow and orange, as we learned in high-school Biology, are hidden under green, but whence comes red? This is where the mystery begins. We know that warm sunny days and cool nights result in more red color, and that relatively few tree species produce red fall color.

In case anyone asks you, which I realize is unlikely, you can tell them the chemicals responsible for the red and purple range are called anthocyanins. These large, complex molecules take a lot of energy to create, and many plants invest in them in springtime to protect young emerging leaves from UV damage. After a leaf hardens off, anthocyanins break down and the plant stops making them.

Like medical doctors, botanists sometimes find it hard to make their mouths form the phrase “I don’t know.” This temporary and selective facial paralysis has afflicted me far too often, and to my shame I’ve pitched a reasonable but untested reply. Many authorities have said that trees make anthocyanins in the fall to protect leaves from the sun. With practice, some of them have even been able to say it without giggling. This explanation is far too simplistic and fraught with problems.

Renowned as frugal and pragmatic creatures, trees don’t spend savings without a dang good reason. It seems far-fetched that trees would use precious energy to protect dying chlorophyll at the same time they’re busy making the abscission layers that are killing said chlorophyll. If the “fall suntan lotion” explanation is correct, maples should turn red at roughly the same time, with leaves coloring uniformly through the crown, and in any weather conditions (except freezing, which puts an abrupt end to color change).

If you call me up to inquire why some trees use red and purple on their autumn leaves, I’ll admit that I don’t really—well, actually, it depends on the day. I may just tell you the story about about faded laundry on the line.

Photo: Above, the veins of this leaf are still green while the other tissue is turning red (courtesy Wikimedia user Nickel Eisen); and below, a cross-section of a leaf showing color changes (courtesy USDA Forest Service).

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

3 Responses

  1. RCarey says:

    Many thanks for this article. Nice to see things I learned (and subsequently forgot) years ago put so eloquently in a nice tight package. Good job!

  2. Wally Elton says:

    Enjoyed this article. But what is your opinion on why the reds persist in some species, or why they re more pronounced in some years?

  3. Debra says:

    You’re a great writer, Paul!
    Informative – clever – funny.

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